We can’t say GM foods are safe any more than we can say snakes are safe. Report: Claire Robinson
An article by Jane E. Brody published in the New York Times earlier this year was titled, "Are GMO foods safe?"
The arguments in Brody’s article are perennial, popping up again and again in the PR messaging of the GMO lobby. Below is an explanation of why her statements are false and misleading, followed by a commentary by the ecologist Prof Philip J. Regal.
In her article, Brody argued, "In the decades since the first genetically modified foods reached the market, no adverse health effects among consumers have been found. This is not to say there are none, but as hard as opponents of the technology have looked, none have yet been definitely identified."
Brody implied that GM is nothing to worry about because "Farmers and agricultural scientists have been genetically engineering the foods we eat for centuries through breeding programs that result in large and largely uncontrolled exchanges of genetic material."
Brody referred to a poll that found that a majority of the general public – 57% – say that GM foods are unsafe to eat, but 88% of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believe that GM foods are generally safe. She claimed that the latter reassuring view is "endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization".
Brody concluded, "Consumers concerned about the growing use of GMOs in the foods they depend on might consider taking a more nuanced approach than blanket opposition. Rather than wholesale rejection, take some time to learn about how genetic engineering works and the benefits it can offer now and in the future as climate change takes an ever greater toll on food supplies. Consider supporting efforts that result in safe products that represent improvements over the original and focusing opposition on those that are less desirable."
However, Brody’s assertions were wildly inaccurate and a testament to sloppy or non-existent research. Her article ignored the following facts:
2. Nobody has carried out any studies on the human health effects of eating GMOs. So Brody’s claim that opponents of GMOs have looked "hard" for evidence of harm is false. Plenty of animal studies, on the other hand, have found actual and potential harm from a GMO diet. These peer-reviewed studies have been summarised in the book GMO Myths and Truths, which I co-authored with two genetic engineers, as well as in a peer-reviewed article by Prof Sheldon Krimsky.
3. Brody shot herself in the foot when she admitted: "This is not to say that everything done in the name of genetic engineering has a clean bill of health. Controversy abounds over the use of genetically modified seeds that produce crops like soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum that are resistant to a widely used herbicide, glyphosate, the health effects of which are still unclear."
Aside from the fact that there is no glyphosate-tolerant GM sorghum on the market anywhere, Brody is hereby effectively conceding that upwards of 90% of all GM crops grown in the US are potentially unsafe. That's because around that proportion of the US soy, corn, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to be grown with glyphosate herbicide, which Brody concedes has prompted "controversy" over its health effects. Notably, the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC has classed it as a “probable” human carcinogen.
4. Brody's claim that respected expert bodies have concluded that GMOs are safe is misleading in the extreme and shows that she did not actually read the statements of the bodies concerned. For example, what the World Health Organisation (WHO) actually said about GM food safety is diametrically opposite to what Brody claimed. The WHO stated, "Individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods". This is a far cry from endorsing the view that "GM foods are generally safe", as Brody claimed.
I agree with the WHO's view – as do plenty of expert bodies that have looked at the evidence. These expert bodies conclude variously that GMO foods have not been shown to be safe, that some appear to be unsafe, and/or that they should be labelled while the scientific jury is still out.
Ironically, although Brody ends her article with an insistence that it is not possible to generalise about GMOs, she herself generalises by implying that they are safe as a class.
All snakes can't be assumed to be safe – professor
Philip J. Regal is a former professor of ecology, behaviour and evolution at the University of Minnesota who has observed the GM food venture since its inception. He offered the following analysis of Brody's article:
"Way back in the 1980s hundreds of scientists who were studying this issue agreed that there were potential risks to health in genetically engineering food plants and animals. But scientifically there had to be case-by-case evaluation, and no categorical green or red light could be assigned to all GMO foods. There can be no 'type specimen' of a GMO food, any more than one could say that all snakes are safe because one taken from the garden is safe, or even that most snakes are safe. One has to open the mouth and look for fangs and evaluate each species of snake in its own right, or know the species to begin with.
"But the industry quickly decided and let us know that they would have none of this case-by-case evaluation because it would be much too expensive. So their PR efforts have pushed for a categorical clean bill of health to avoid the expensive case-by-case evaluations that they claimed would kill their industry.
"Brody does slip this in ('Establishing long-term safety would require prohibitively expensive decades of study of hundreds of thousands of GMO consumers and their non-GMO counterparts'), but fails to put the issue into context or explain its implications for policy formation.
"The result is an article that is simply a polemic and is not educational.
"We have ended up with a phoney public discourse, especially in the US. The very title of this article frames the issue misleadingly and goes on to talk about GMOs as though they can be characterized scientifically as a category that is safe or unsafe. This is like asking, 'Is it safe to drive on roads at night?' It's a silly question with no useful context – for example, on which weather or road conditions could make some roads dangerous at night.
"It is as meaningless to say that 90% of scientists believe GM foods are safe as to say that 90% of police think it is safe to drive at night."
No proper studies
Prof Regal continued, "The science here is complicated. Most scientists, even most molecular biologists, have not studied it. Moreover, there have been no proper empirical scientific studies of products currently on the market, and so we are left to guess. So why not be honest and say, 'About 90 percent of some scientists – perhaps including geologists – if pressed, GUESS that most GMOs currently on the market are probably safe to eat. But they can say even less about what the future may bring as the food supply is increasingly genetically modified.'
"I once consulted for a major agribusiness company that had put spider and scorpion genes into food plants as an internal pesticide. I convinced them to kill their project. They had a team of scientists that had been working on it for years and 100% of them thought it would be safe because these venoms were not toxic to mammals – until we had our discussion. They were not thinking about allergenicity of arthropod venoms, for example, which can be very dangerous and fatal. There is a difference between toxicity and allergenicity, but both can be fatal. It is not science to just take a vote, especially a vote by scientists who have not thoroughly studied a topic. At least that team did want to double-check their consensus.”
Potentially lethal allergenicity in a GM food
Regarding the potential allergenicity of GM foods, Prof Regal said, "A few years ago Professor Marion Nestle warned in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that the industry was putting DNA into foods from microorganisms and other creatures about which we know next to nothing, and emphasised ‘the pressing need to expand basic and clinical research on food allergies’. The editorial accompanied an article in the NEJM documenting that potentially lethal allergenicity from Brazil nuts had been unexpectedly transferred into a food plant, soy, with genetic engineering.
"The scientists who did it were surprised because they thought it would be safe. The problem was only caught at the last minute and the project was stopped before any damage was done.
"We were lucky that it is well known that Brazil nuts can be lethally allergenic for some individuals and so the genetic engineers could be convinced to allow tests on their plants. Nestle's editorial warning was scientifically prudent, not hysteria. One wonders if Brody has done any homework, or if she is merely passing along industry boilerplate PR.
"An informative NYT article might explain why there are reasons to be cautious when engineering or eating certain GMO foods, depending on the particular type of GMO food. The parallel would be an article that explains why some roads may be dangerous from ice, potholes, cattle crossing, falling rocks, and drunk drivers, and that these can be harder to see and avoid at night. That would be a true public service. It would also be true to the science.
"So what is Brody's article? It is not news. It is not a public service. It is not background information. You tell me."